Friday, April 10, 2009

RCL - Good Friday B - 10 Apr 2009

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Michael Dowd, OHC
RCL - Good Friday B - Friday 10 April 2009

An Invitation To Love

Crucifix in the St Augustine monastic church
Originally uploaded by Randy OHC

There are many aspects to Good Friday. Way to many for one sermon. In fact, over the course of Christian history so much has been written about the meaning of Good Friday in general, and the Cross of Christ specifically, that it can be numbing. Beginning with the writers of Scripture, the great Fathers of the Church, theologians throughout time, saints, scholars, mystics, poets, and ordinary folks like me, all of us have tried to make sense of the Passion, Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord on Calvary. And none of it has ever been satisfying to me, at least not totally.

But I have come to a point in my life where I am willing to accept mystery. Especially the mystery of the Passion. In my earlier life, I had to know all the facts we could know about the Crucifixion of Christ.

It seemed to me that being in touch with the historic Jesus of Nazareth was essential to my faith. And now, not so much. In fact, the Lord’s Passion has drawn me into an experience of God that is so much deeper than I could have ever gotten had I just stuck with an historical approach to the faith.

And if there is any one group of people who have led me to this point, it is the great Mystics who are responsible. One of them, St. Catherine of Siena, wrote this prayer:
Precious Blood,
Ocean of Divine Mercy
Flow upon us!

Precious Blood,
Most Pure Offering
Procure us every grace!

Precious Blood,
Hope and refuge for sinners
Atone for us!

Precious Blood,
Delight of Holy Souls
Draw us!
Catherine, of course, is the great 14th Century Doctor of the Church and Mystic. At the same time my intellect was telling me to study about the historic Jesus, my heart and soul was drawing me to the Western Mystics and especially to their contemplation of the Passion of Our Lord. This attraction began for me when I was quite young - long before I even knew what a Mystic was. I just knew there was something about the kind of prayer that they engaged in to be right. While I sometimes find the language they have used a bit flowery and, sure, they sometimes seemed a little obsessed with just exactly how much suffering a nail to the ankle produced; on the whole, I thought - and think - they basically got it right.

The common denominator in this mystical approach to the Passion of Our Lord seems to be a contemplation of the crucifix, and of the Holy Wounds and Precious Blood of Christ. I could not possibly count how many paintings of saints I looked at over the years who were staring at a
crucifix on the wall, or on their desk, or held in their arms like a baby. But that image is still very important to me and is still one I use in my own prayer.

The last stanza of the prayer I just read from St. Catherine is the one that moves me: “Precious Blood, Delight of Holy Souls, Draw us!” It’s that phrase “draw us” that appeals to me. That is, after all, what Jesus told us the cross would do. Just two weeks ago, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, we heard the Gospel proclaimed “...when I am lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” I believe, that if there was a one sentence summation of the term Salvation History, that would be it: “when I am lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.

Christ is drawing all people to himself by his cross and, no matter how hard we try to clean up the cross and make it less messy, we cannot get away from one thing: Christ wants to draw us in with it. That is why, I think, all those Saints and Mystics spent so much time gazing on a crucifix, looking at Jesus’ Holy Wounds and contemplating his Precious Blood. That approach has been written off to cultural forces and over zealous piety, and it’s not really popular today. But I have come to believe that there is something to it.

But why exactly is Christ drawing us into his suffering? My answer to that question is that I believe that Christ was constantly teaching us how to love in everything he did. I think with his teaching, with his healing, with his raising people from the dead, all of that was about teaching us how to love one another, thus teaching us how to live in closer union with God. Remember that he told his disciples that they, too, had the power to convey God’s love, to forgive people’s sins, to heal the sick, drive out demons, and even raise the dead. All we needed was faith. All we needed was love.

And throughout, Jesus repeatedly says that he would not lose even one of us. Listen again to the Gospel Proclamation we just heard:
Jesus: “Whom are you looking for?”
Reader 1: “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus: “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these
men go.”
Narrator: This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not
lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”
In St. John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say something to that effect four different times. That he will not lose even one. And in the Good Shepherd narrative, Jesus tells us that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, as opposed to the hired hand who flees the moment the wolf arrives on the scene.

Clearly, Jesus knows that he must go to the very limit to demonstrate for us what it means to love. And there he is imparting wisdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, which is returned with either a great deal of hatred and fear, or, perhaps worse, indifference. And so, it’s off to Calvary.

Thomas a Kempis, not a mystic, by the way, in his classic work The Imitation of Christ tells us that “if Jesus Crucified would come into our hearts, how quickly and perfectly we would be instructed in the spiritual life.” And, with all due respect to Thomas a Kempis, I think he only got that partially right. I think Jesus Crucified coming into our hearts is a good thing - but that’s for another sermon. Right now, what I am asking you to do is to reflect on the Cross of Christ as an
Invitation. An Invitation to love that Christ is drawing you - and all of us - into. I believe that this is not so much about us being open to receiving Christ in our hearts - some how that seems to self-referential on Good Friday. I believe the Cross of Christ is about us - each of us - being drawn into Christ on the Cross to become a union of love in him.

If we were in a union of love in him we would know what it means to hang on that Cross as the ultimate expression of love. We would know that we could not lose even one who has been entrusted to us. We would find a way to love the person in our life who is odd, difficult, temperamental.

We would find a way to love those who have been pushed to the fringes of society: the hungry and homeless who prowl our city streets in greater numbers with each passing day; the sick and dying, who so often are ignored because it is just to painful to see them up close; our elderly, who too easily get warehoused in soul-less institutions; those we wage war on in with increasing stealth, so that we don’t even have to look into their eyes as we murder them. And we would love these people not in some kind of ethereal way, praying for them from a great distance, but
in a real, messy, sweaty, bloody, way - just like the way Jesus loved us on the Cross. We would be involved with them. We would love them until our hearts broke. We would even die for them.

St. Paul, perhaps the original mystic, tells us that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. That is what being drawn to Christ’s Cross does. That’s the invitation. I have come to believe that God became Incarnate as Jesus the Christ who then suffered and died, not in order to live in our hearts, but so that we might live in his heart, become part of his body, be in total union with him. If we were in this total union with him, we would indeed be capable of forgiving the sins of another, of healing the sick, even of raising the dead. And, as we are all part of this same Body of Christ, we dare not lose even one part of that Body.

That’s why, I think, all those saints and mystics were gazing on the cross. And that’s why I think we should all follow their example. We should gaze on that Cross of Christ, not as we might look at a horror movie recoiling from all the gore. Rather, we should gaze upon that Cross and be drawn into it as something much more difficult than gore.

We should look upon our Lord and know that we have been Invited to Love in Him, through Him, and with Him. Right up there on that Cross.


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